The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation

The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation

by Reginald F. Hildebrand

Hardcover

$94.95

Overview

With the conclusion of the Civil War, the beginnings of Reconstruction, and the realities of emancipation, former slaves were confronted with the possibility of freedom and, with it, a new way of life. In The Times Were Strange and Stirring, Reginald F. Hildebrand examines the role of the Methodist Church in the process of emancipation—and in shaping a new world at a unique moment in American, African American, and Methodist history.
Hildebrand explores the ideas and ideals of missionaries from several branches of Methodism—the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and the northern-based Methodist Episcopal Church—and the significant and highly charged battle waged between them over the challenge and meaning of freedom. He traces the various strategies and goals pursued by these competing visions and develops a typology of some of the ways in which emancipation was approached and understood.
Focusing on individual church leaders such as Lucius H. Holsey, Richard Harvey Cain, and Gilbert Haven, and with the benefit of extensive research in church archives and newspapers, Hildebrand tells the dramatic and sometimes moving story of how missionaries labored to organize their denominations in the black South, and of how they were overwhelmed at times by the struggles of freedom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822316275
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/24/1995
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)
Lexile: 1380L (what's this?)

About the Author

Reginald F. Hildebrand is Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Read an Excerpt

The Times were Strange and Stirring

Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation


By Reginald F. Hildebrand

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8193-8



CHAPTER 1

SOUTHERN METHODIST PATERNALISM, OLD AND NEW


The members of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church were subjected to a great deal of disparagement. Some of the harshest came from the leaders of other black Methodist denominations. During Reconstruction, some blacks regarded Colored Methodists as evangelical pariahs, who had an unseemly attachment to the past at a time when the fulfillment of the promise of freedom seemed to belong to the future. Yet, in 1873, after only three years of existence, the denomination claimed nearly 68,000 members, and its 635 preachers held forth from pulpits throughout the South. To understand the significance of Colored Methodism, it is useful to review some of the factors that brought the C.M.E. Church into being.

The relationship between blacks and Southern Methodism was intimate and longstanding by the time of emancipation. In the years before it achieved respectability, many whites dismissed Methodism as a refuge for the refuse of society. The denomination also labored under the suspicion that there were antislavery embers smoldering somewhere in the core of its social gospel. As a consequence, it was in part by default that blacks came to swell Methodist ranks. In 1826, blacks made up about forty percent of the membership in South Carolina and Georgia, and in some local areas black Methodists vastly outnumbered their white coreligionists. It was with considerable pride that a minister who had preached to slaves observed: "It cannot be refuted that from the earliest appearance of Methodism in the South, the negro shared largely in the labor and care of her ministry." Southern Methodists took a special interest in carrying the gospel to slaves on plantations: the slave population represented a huge, inviting mission field on southern soil. White Southern Methodists believed that God had caused the salvation of blacks to be entrusted to their hands. Reverend William Martin expressed a sentiment that was shared by many of the missionaries to slaves when he recalled: "It was a great work, a momentous work, a special one for the South."

Of course, the spread of Christianity among antebellum black southerners did not require white missionaries or membership in white churches, any more than the transmission of spirituals required white choir directors, but this study is concerned with the official Methodist mission to plantations and its legacy. Reverend William Capers is generally credited with establishing ongoing missions to slaves on plantations in 1829, although individual efforts by Methodist preachers, black as well as white, preceded that date. In a sense, the officially recognized Methodist mission to slaves was called into being by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who was an Episcopalian. Pinckney asked Capers to send missionaries to his plantation on the Santee River in South Carolina. He had been favorably impressed by the influence that a Methodist overseer had on the slaves of a fellow planter in Georgia. Pinckney was joined in his request by two other owners of large plantations, neither of whom were Methodists. The endorsement of those influential planters gave an important fillip to the missionary enterprise. Under Capers's supervision, the plantation missions grew rapidly. Between 1829 and 1844, the mission project grew from two missionaries with little financial support, working with 417 slaves on three plantations; to seventy-one missionaries with a budget of $22,377, serving sixty-eight mission stations with a total of 21,063 members.

In 1844, slaveholding by a southern bishop, under some extenuating circumstances, exacerbated already existing tensions within Methodism and split the denomination into separate northern and southern bodies. The southern church became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, also called Southern Methodism. Having completely divorced itself from the antislavery sentiments of its northern coreligionists, Southern Methodism became even more acceptable to slave owners, and the mission to slaves continued its rapid expansion under strictly southern auspices. By 1861, there were 327 missionaries in the field, serving 329 missions with 6659 members, supported by a budget of $86,359.20. According to William P. Harrison, the historian of the plantation mission, on the eve of the Civil War, Methodist missionaries were active in an area that "extended from the Potomac to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi and beyond."

Southern Methodists held their missionaries in high esteem. In the estimation of Capers's biographer, the labors of some of those men evoked "the heroic spirit of the ancient faith." It is not likely that the record of the missionaries' travail is free from romanticization, but it is clear that some of them did encounter insalubrious conditions, isolation from other whites, meager remuneration, and long, hard hours of demanding work. The rice-growing regions of South Carolina were considered to be particularly hazardous for missionaries. By working in the swampy environment that the slaves were forced to inhabit, white Methodists exposed themselves to "billious fever," "the dread pestilence," and "deadly miasmatic exhalations." As one missionary remembered: "It was no holiday time."

Ministering to the slave quarters also had its own unique rewards. Some missionaries were deeply touched by the willingness with which slaves drew from their own meager resources to contribute to the support of "their" preacher. As exemplars of evangelical paternalism, white Southern Methodists were particularly gratified by expressions of gratitude and affection from their black charges. In 1859, Reverend J. A. Clement, who served as a missionary in Alabama, wrote a letter to the Southern Advocate in which he asked: "Mr. Editor, did you ever preach to negroes? Do you not recognize the hearty Amen, the impressive shake of the hand? And then that 'Thankee massa, for dat sarmon. You told me sumpin I dint know afore.'" Mission historian Harrison concluded that, despite the hardships, "many" preachers sought plantation duty because of the "peculiar unction" that was bestowed upon the missionaries who served the "sable children of Africa."

Most of the Southern Methodists who answered the call to serve as plantation missionaries were sincerely committed to the slaves' salvation and spiritual welfare. It is too easy to draw their motives into question because the subordination of blacks and the justification of slaveholding were such integral parts of their ministry. For the most part, they were not being hypocritical; they simply believed that the Bible mandated both salvation and slavery. As Donald G. Mathews observed in his thoughtful and perceptive study, Religion in the Old South: "The Gospel of love could sometimes be mistaken as a means instead of an end; the conversion of slaves became the means of saving the South."

On the other hand, the spiritual sincerity of the missionaries did not mitigate the impact of their equally sincere efforts to maintain the social order of which slavery was a part. Under Capers's supervision, the Southern Methodist mission to slaves won the confidence of slave owners by demonstrating that the business of saving souls would not produce troublesome disciplinary byproducts. The missionaries subjected their captive congregations to homilies on hard work, honesty, chastity, fidelity, and responsibility. They preached the whole canon of middle-class virtues and obligations, without the promise of middle-class respectability or social mobility. In 1836, Capers explained: "Our missionaries inculcate the duties of servants to their masters, as we find those duties stated in the Scriptures. They inculcate the performance of them as indispensably important. We hold that a Christian slave must be submissive, faithful and obedient." The most radical of the Southern Methodists only attempted to make slavery a less brutal institution, and hence a stronger one, better able to withstand the fulminations of northern abolitionists.

By the early 1830s, experience and observation had convinced plantation owners that the missionaries were safe on the issue of slavery. Southern Methodists took great pride in the large number of prominent patrons who endorsed, encouraged, and financed their efforts. In addition to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, luminaries such as Robert Barnwell Rhett and Wade Hampton also made Methodism a part of the culture of their slaves. The planters, many of whom were not Methodists themselves, believed that they got a handsome secular return for their investment in missions.

Over the decades, Southern Methodism invested time, money, and manpower into the construction of a social order in which slavery and the gospel functioned together, smoothly and symbiotically. Its missionaries overcame the initial suspicions of slaveholders and withstood the denunciations of those Northern Methodists who were opposed to slavery. The church believed that it had kept faith with its evangelical responsibilities by bringing thousands of slaves into the light. White Southern Methodists were proud of the accomplishments of their denomination. They were confident that God would continue to smile upon their efforts and bring them even greater success in the future. Then, the war came and things fell apart.

Reverend Francis Asbury Mood was pastor of the Colored Mission Church organized in Charleston during the war. Reverend Mood viewed the war from the perspective of the missionaries. He recalled the Union bombardment of Charleston in this way: "Trinity Church was soon compassed by shells and its pastor left the city. One of the first shells that fell—penetrated the tomb of Rev. John Honour in Trinity cemetery, the first missionary to the Negroes in Carolina, exploded and literally tore it to atoms."

Reverend Mood's recollection could be apocryphal, but it accurately conveys the impact of the war on plantation missions. The reverend recalled with regret that territory gained for the Union was territory lost for the missions. It was difficult for the denomination to function effectively in occupied territory. The planters who had lent their support to the missions lacked authority. The denomination's finances dried up. Slavery was demolished. Perhaps the most disorienting development of all was that far, far too many of the black beneficiaries of the evangelical concern of Southern Methodism abandoned the denomination and embraced the glad tidings of aggressive emissaries of black and white Methodist denominations from the North.

In 1860, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, claimed a total of 207,776 black members. By 1866, only 78,742 of that number remained, and the exodus of former slaves showed no signs of abating. During that same time period, the South Carolina Conference of the Church, which had given birth to the mission to slaves, lost a staggering sixty-seven percent of its black membership; 33,384 black South Carolinians chose to leave the paternal care of Southern Methodism. The North Carolina Conference lost sixty-two percent of its black members, and the Tennessee Conference lost forty-five percent. During the final winter of the war, the Mississippi Conference reported that its missions to slaves along the Mississippi River had been "completely broken up, with perhaps one or two exceptions." Southern Methodist missionaries would have to try to make some sense out of what had happened to them and then decide what, if anything, they could do to redeem the situation.

Could it be that the troubles that befell the South were produced by the "terrible swift sword" of a deity angered by the immorality of slavery? There is no reason to believe that the outcome of the war, or the exodus of black Methodists, caused the missionaries to question the support their denomination had given to slavery. Military defeat had little impact on scripturally based beliefs. As Southern Methodists saw things, enslavement, particularly the enslavement of the descendants of Ham, was a biblically sound social practice. The Apostle Paul had not been an abolitionist. Even if Providence had decreed that the time for slavery had come to an end, it had not decreed that the institution had ever been sinful, or that those who supported it had been misguided in their interpretation of divine will.

Why, then, would the Lord have caused the South to drink from such a bitter cup? True believers could not leave the question unanswered. Toward the end of the war, Methodist ministers in Georgia reaffirmed their belief that slavery was the instrument that God had chosen to place Africans "under the Christian tutelage of Anglo-Saxon Protestants," but their equanimity was not complete. The clergymen wondered whether southern evangelicals had done enough to bring salvation to the souls that had been entrusted to their stewardship. Perhaps they had not measured up to the task of making slavery a truly Christian institution. "If we had been faithful to this high trust," the Georgians conjectured, "God might have turned aside the red waves of war."

In any event, suffering could be redemptive, and it was not necessarily a sign of God's displeasure. An editorial that appeared in the Southern Christian Advocate in January 1865 reminded its readers that "the foundations of Israel's greatness were laid in the sufferings undergone in Egypt." Even though the Jews had been conquered, they remained "God's elect people" and they preserved their "national distinctiveness." The Advocate offered a comforting homily to those southerners who were dismayed by the course of the war: "If we would be a great and good people, we must be formed to greatness and goodness by God's own hand, in God's own way."

The resolve of southern evangelicals had not been broken. "Though cast down, we are not destroyed," the Missionary Society of the South Carolina Conference asserted in November 1865. Of course, there were some expressions of resentment and bitterness, but, for the most part, the missionaries pledged to continue to put forth their best efforts on behalf of their former charges. They concluded that many of the freed people who left the denomination did so simply because they had become intoxicated by their new freedom and had allowed themselves to be beguiled by northern interlopers. The Missionary Society advised that the circumstances required patience: "The people we have long served may yet discover that old friends are the best friends, and we can afford to abide God's time, and calmly await the result." The Georgia Conference also met in November 1865 and resolved to maintain its mission work even though many blacks had "unwisely and ungraciously" severed their ties with Southern Methodism and succumbed to the influence of "evil counselors." During the year after the defeat of the Confederacy, every state conference in the denomination resolved to continue to work with blacks, but the message of the membership figures was clear. Southern Methodist mission work had suffered a defeat that was just as devastating as the one experienced by the secular South.

Nevertheless, the basic assumptions that had shaped the mission to slaves did survive the war pretty much intact. White Southern Methodists continued to believe that their objectives in regard to the black population were correct and sanctioned by God. They did not dissemble when they professed a desire to keep blacks in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. They had strong religious, psychological, and social reasons for wanting to retain the membership of former slaves. Religious consistency and the evangelical imperative required that the missionaries not let emancipation lessen their zeal for redeeming black souls. If a denomination that took great pride in its concern for the spiritual welfare of slaves took no interest in the salvation of freed people, it would leave itself open to the charge of hypocrisy. It would seem as though the missionaries had been commissioned by slave owners and not by God. Southern Methodists were not inclined to play into the hands of northerners who accused them of having been no more than overseers in clergymen's clothing.

Evangelical paternalists also had a psychological investment in the missions that they did not want to lose because of the war. The missionaries believed that God had selected southern whites to be the guardians of his African children. Divine Providence set apart white evangelicals to be emissaries of the gospel to those who were most in need of its influence. The mission to slaves made southern churchmen chosen people. It provided reassuring evidence of their own sanctification and gave special purpose and luster to southern religion. The mission to slaves was the most distinctive element of the religious identity of the South. It was a distinction that whites would not yield willingly.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Times were Strange and Stirring by Reginald F. Hildebrand. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
INTRODUCTION,
METHODIST DENOMINATIONS REFERRED TO IN THIS BOOK,
PART I SOUTHERN METHODISM AND COLORED METHODISM "BLEST BE THE TIE THAT BINDS",
1 SOUTHERN METHODIST PATERNALISM, OLD AND NEW,
2 COLORED METHODISM AND THE NEW PATERNALISM,
PART 2 AFRICAN METHODISM AND THE FREEDPEOPLE "TO PROCLAIM LIBERTY TO THE CAPTIVES",
3 AFRICAN METHODISTS SEEK THEIR BRETHREN,
4 EXEGESIS OF THE GOSPEL OF FREEDOM,
PART 3 NORTHERN METHODISM AND SOUTHERN BLACKS "IN CHRIST THERE IS NO EAST OR WEST",
5 THE METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH: A MISSION TAKES SHAPE,
6 THE APPEAL OF NORTHERN METHODISM,
7 REPUBLICANISM AND THE RISE AND FALL OF ANTICASTE RADICALISM,
CONCLUSION,
CHRONOLOGY,
NOTES,
INTRODUCTION,
METHODIST DENOMINATIONS REFERRED TO IN THIS BOOK,
1 SOUTHERN METHODIST PATERNALISM, OLD AND NEW,
2 COLORED METHODISM AND THE NEW PATERNALISM,
3 AFRICAN METHODISTS SEEK THEIR BRETHREN,
4 EXEGESIS OF THE GOSPEL OF FREEDOM,
5 THE METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH: A MISSION TAKES SHAPE,
6 THE APPEAL OF NORTHERN METHODISM,
7 REPUBLICANISM AND THE RISE AND FALL OF ANTICASTE RADICALISM,
CONCLUSION,
BIBLIOGRAPHY,
OUTLINE,
PRIMARY SOURCES,
SECONDARY SOURCES,

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